I have thought a lot about you these past few months-you, the ones listening to or reading this sermon. I have wondered about you and your life. I have wondered if you have ever found yourself having to remember to breathe.
I know, at first it sounds strange, even a bit silly, but has anyone ever told you, "Now, just take a deep breath," as she tries to calm you down? When I was in my final semester of seminary, I became entangled in a web of thick chaos. My father heard the cancer diagnosis that January. My husband and I were graduating in May. I had just accepted a call to be an associate pastor at my first church. And seminary classes were still ongoing and professors were still demanding. I'm out of breath just thinking about it all.
During that time of thick chaos, I began to sigh a lot-loud, dramatic sighs. People noticed. "Shannon, do you know how much you do that?" a friend asked me. Well, no. I had no idea. For once in my life, I was not being dramatic on purpose. At the same time of my heavy sighing, I was enrolled in a "Women's Health and Wholeness" seminar. One day, we learned about the cost of stress and chaos on your body. Apparently, when you feel deep stress, you breathe very shallow breaths. And, so, your body compensates for the lack of oxygen by making you sigh. Your body forces you to take a deep breath.
I share this story with you because I have imagined some of you might find yourselves doing the same thing-forgetting to breathe, let alone breathe deeply. We go from task to task, from stress to stress, from activity to activity, from need to need. And before we know it, we are simply breathless. Life has socked us in the gut, the web of chaos winds around our throat, and we cannot breathe.
By this point in their journey, the disciples were probably quite breathless themselves. Remember all that has happened in the last 50 days for them. Jesus' goodbye. His arrest and crucifixion-an event itself accompanied by loud sighs and long wails of grief. But, then, his resurrection and continued ministry with them. Their shallow, grief-laden breathing must have become full and robust again as Jesus resumed teaching them about the kingdom of God.
And, yet, just as the disciples caught their breath, Jesus did as he said he would-he left. He was taken out of their sight and returned to the One from whom he came. It must have been heartwrenching. The wind was simply knocked out of them. I bet they sighed loudly with stress and fear, the web of chaos winding around their throats.
And so the disciples did what all church people do in times of fear and chaos-they had a meeting. They busily began to try and get their game plan together. There was so much to do. They needed to get organized. They needed to choose more apostles to help them with all the work Jesus had left in their trembling hands. After all, they were now supposed to tell other people about what God had done in Jesus. It was a daunting mission. Loud sighing must have filled the room and you know anxious looks etched their faces. They could not believe they were now the ones in charge of continuing Jesus' ministry to the outcast, to the poor, to the powerful, to the sick-but all without his physical presence. It was enough to make them scared and breathless.
But before the disciples knew what was happening, out of the blue, they heard a mighty wind heading their way. The wind blew through the entire house, filling each of them with a breath that came from somewhere else, Someone Else. The wind, the breath, filled them with a power they did not understand. They had not asked for this breath nor expected it. This power, this breath, this courage just swooped into the room and filled them up in a way they could have never predicted. And with it, they discovered a reserve of strength they did not know they possessed. They came face to face, lung to lung, with the gift of God's Holy Spirit, God's holy breath.
And so what did they do? Once the disciples realized they could breathe again, once they shook themselves loose from the stress and the anxiety, once they unwound the grip of chaos from around their throats, they found themselves speaking of God's deeds in their lives. They all burst out in languages they did not even know they could speak-telling the story of how they once were no people, but now they were God's people. They once had no name, no faith, and no future, but now, they were God's own sons and daughters, given the breath of faith, glimpsing a future in which they were received back to God's own self.
These timid, stressed-out disciples found themselves preaching, testifying, to who God was and what God had done in their lives. And the people listened. The crowd grew. Yes, some in the crowd thought they were drunk. You and I might have assumed the same thing. The crowd had no other way to explain it.
But then Peter gave voice to what was happening. And as he preached, I imagine all of these people-people from near and far, strangers and foreigners, young and old, began to breathe deeper. They started to purposefully inhale some of this Spirit breath into their own lungs. And the church was breathed and birthed into being. And people far and wide, in all kinds of languages with all kinds of traditions, began to speak of God and how God was at work in their lives and in the world. And the breath of God blew freely and wildly, filling their lungs, giving them courage and a strength they did not know they had. And Christ's body, the church, was knit together and began to move.
But here is the kicker of this story: While it is a lovely story, a meaningful story, a powerful story, we simply cannot keep it contained in the past. God's Spirit still works this way. The Holy Spirit, the breath of God, is at work, here and now. Through Scripture and prayers, through music and proclamation, through experience and relationships, God's holy breath challenges us, comforts us, scares us, clarifies things for us. The story of Pentecost tells us if we are open to breathing it in, if we dare to pray "Come Holy Spirit," we will find our own lungs filled to the gills with a courage, a reserve of strength, a passion of faith we did not even know we had.
As people of Pentecost, God invites us to experience the fullness of life which God intends with God's holy breath. We are invited to breathe deeply and consciously in every moment of our lives. Breathing, expecting to be filled with God's Spirit, God's holy breath. Expecting to be changed by it as it fills our lungs. Expecting that we might see things we could never imagine seeing, or speak things we did not think we had the courage to say.
And let me tell you, this open approach to God's Spirit works. I have tried it. My own particular congregation works at a place called the Stewpot in downtown Dallas. It is an urban ministry program run by First Presbyterian Church. Our group goes twice a month to serve food, dignity and hospitality on the soup lunch line. Usually, they serve around 550 people-most of whom live on the streets of downtown Dallas. A couple of years ago, I went with our volunteer group to the Stewpot's volunteer appreciation luncheon. While we began to eat, a group of the Stewpot's clients got up and stood by the piano on risers. Now, I imagine these clients are people who lose their breath quite frequently, who get the wind knocked out of them by all kinds of people and all kinds of systems.
But they all stood up, took a deep collective breath, and began to sing. As they began, a few looked nervous, a bit timid. Sing: "I'm gonna lay down my burdens, down by the riverside" But as they breathed and sang, their timidity faded. Smiles grew on their anxiety-etched faces. Sing: "down by the riverside, down by the riverside." As they breathed and as they sang, I watched them grow taller. Their heads lifted higher. They swayed with the power of their music. Sing: "I'm gonna lay down my burdens, down by the riverside, ain't gonna study war no more."
As they sang, as I watched their transformation, I found myself swaying and purposefully trying to breathe in a bit deeper than I normally would. In that room, I had a clear sense I was watching God's holy breath rushing freely, sparking flames of new life and deep courage. I wanted to inhale as much as possible. For just a few moments, that lunch was a Pentecost feast. All kinds of people from all kinds of places were in one room, sharing a meal, singing songs, breathing in the breath of God and talking with each other about their faith, about the way the world could be, should be, about the day when the Stewpot did not need to exist for all manners of things were well. You just could not help but breathe in with abandon.
And this was not the first time I had seen the power of God's holy breath at work. I have seen God's holy breath symbolized by the machines that pump oxygen into the lungs of some of my homebound members. I have been known to incorrectly assume that because of their declining health and their limited mobility they must feel distanced from God. But when I ask them, "Do you feel God's presence in your life?" I am always humbled and instructed when they hold their head up a bit higher, breathe in that oxygen a little deeper and respond, "Well, of course. It is how I get through each day. God gives me strength to keep on." And always in their presence, I find myself breathing in a little more purposefully, wanting to inhale as much of God's Spirit hovering within and around them as I possibly can.
I could go on and on. I bet you have your own stories. I wish we could share them. For this day of Pentecost affirms for us that God's Spirit, God's breath is still at work around, among, and in us. It is a breath of life, of courage, and of proclamation that can fill our lungs to overflowing, causing us to sing and to dance, to live and get through each day. It is a breath we do not want to miss. It is a breath we want to learn to expect, for which we want to pray. So perhaps you and I will remember to breathe deeply. To remind those we love to breathe deeply. And, then, we can watch and feel what happens when we do.
Let us pray.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill our lungs, our souls, our lives with your breath of courage and good news. May we be open to your newness. Amen.